It’s a theme prevalent in many works of literature: the river in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the dusty plains in The Grapes of Wrath, the island in Lord of the Flies. Nature often affects the actions of the characters and shapes them in ways that they didn’t foresee. An author who uses place as a central concept in her work is Willa Cather. The vast, rolling fields of Nebraska fill the pages of both My Antonia and O Pioneers! Recently I read O Pioneers! and I marveled at the way that the Bergson family worked with the land and dealt with constant struggles in order to survive.
In O Pioneers! main character Alexandra Bergson has somewhat of a romantic relationship with the land. Throughout the story she admires it when most people despise it for its harshness. When at first the pioneer families are unable to grow crops many of them leave and desert the land. Alexandra however, alters her style of farming to cater to the strengths of the land, recognizing that planting alfalfa will be successful, and understanding that time is necessary for the crops to flourish and her to reap the benefits of the wide-open plains. Others are able to see how much Alexandra loves the land both in her actions and simply in the way she looks at it:
“For the first time, perhaps, since that land emerged from the waters of geologic ages, a human face was set toward it with love and yearning. It seemed beautiful to her, rich and strong and glorious. Her eyes drank in the breadth of it, until her tears blinded her. Then the Genius of the Divide, the great, free spirit which breathes across it, must have bent lower than it ever bent to a human will before. The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman.” (O Pioneers! Willa Cather p. 41-42)
I’ve changed my perspective on this quote in the duration of a few readings. First I simply admired the beautiful relationship that Alexandra has with the land. I think it’s important to recognize that even when everyone else on the plains was deserting the land and cursing it for its barrenness, Alexandra looks upon it with longing and promise. It is rare to find this much devotion to nature coming from a human, and when written as brilliantly as Cather does this, it is a pleasure to read and reflect on.
Upon reading the passage again, I found it interesting to analyze the function of the land in the relationship. While Alexandra’s function is to reap what she can from the potentially bountiful soil, nature essentially is free and in command of the situation. However, interestingly, the quote points out that because of Alexandra’s extreme devotion, the land bows “lower than it ever bent to a human will before”. Nature is a powerful facet of life and seems especially so when humans try to interact with it.
While Alexandra represents an outlier of what it looks like to be a human in nature, the book also describes the relationship of humans as an entity when trying to change the land:
“The roads were but faint tracks in the grass, and the fields were scarcely noticeable. The record of the plow was insignificant, like the feeble scratches on the stone left by prehistoric races, so indeterminate that they may, after all, be only the markings of glaciers, and not a record of human strivings.” (O Pioneers! Willa Cather p.13)
This passage struck me especially hard as I was perusing through the novel. When I think of my house and the rolling country highways that lead there, I think of safety, stability, and I envision them being there forever. I love the land that surrounds my house; the steep hills that shape my legs during the summer, the trees that provide refuge to deer and baby armadillos in the summer, the lake that teems with fish and even poisonous snakes, the cool, dark cave where men before us stored milk and meat. Because of this love for the land, I never envision anything happening to my house. It has always been a safe haven, a place where even in violent thunderstorms I can sit behind the luxury of a window pane to watch the dark clouds race through and the rain furiously pelt the glass.
But yesterday a tornado tore through my town. It took out buildings that I’ve passed countless times on my drives to work or to town, wrecked cars and boats, destroyed roads. And the tornado took the roof off my house. Thankfully no one was home during the tornado so my whole family is safe. Maybe that’s natures’ way of cutting us a break and recognizing that my family loves the soil we’ve planted our feet on. It’s still hard to see pictures of my room though, with all of the walls torn off of it and my possessions scattered everywhere. And in some way I’ve affected the land and nature as much as the tornado hit me; there are books and letters of mine that blew away from the house and could be flying around just about anywhere right now. I kind of like the thought of that; while nature is affecting me by taking away one of the places in the world that felt like mine, I am giving pages of The Count of Monte Cristo to a turtle on the banks of the lake, sharing I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings with a hunched over vulture in a pine somewhere.
Also, I think that this tornado is a good reminder of what is really important in life. It is not my books, pictures, keepsakes, or letters, but rather the people in these things that matter. My family and friends are all safe and I am thankful for that because there are people who were not so lucky yesterday. I am thinking and praying for those who were injured or killed in the tornadoes. I can’t imagine the heartbreak that accompanies that.
So I guess in summary, I am glad that I read O Pioneers! right before hearing the news about my house. The land was there before my family and will be there long after us. Although my house seems like an anchor for my family, tying us all together and holding us and our memories there, it is really our bonds with each other, our neighbors, and our friends that create a neighborhood there. And that’s something special that no tornado can take away. Just as Alexandra Bergson clings to the land and loves it in spite of its harshness, I too will keep loving the land where I live.